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Getting purpose right: Reflections on Cannes Lions 2022

by Amelia Penniman

Reviewing the Grand Prix winners from the Cannes Festival last week, it struck me that more than two-thirds of the winning campaigns were purpose-led: accessibility, gender equity, public health, climate, and political activism were all at the heart of the ads named the best of the best over the last year.

But while “purpose” has clearly made its way into many a proposal deck in board rooms across the U.S. and beyond, corporate ads are still often missing the mark.

How? Brands and agencies have continued to run purpose campaigns without backing them up with action for the causes they advertise around.

It’s not that talking about purpose is bad. It’s just not enough. It won’t help the world and it won’t even help with your business goals. Your stakeholders demand tangible outcomes.

A favorite example of mine is the wildly transparent greenwashing engaged in by the oil majors over the past few years. Take Chevron, which, according to data from AdImpact reported upon by Rolling Stone, used terms including “sustainable,” “renewable,” “environment,” and “clean” in 80% of the ads they ran between June 2020 and August 2021 — while directing only 0.2% of capital expenditures toward lower-carbon forms of energy between 2010 and 2018. The sheer audacity would be laughable if our future wasn’t at stake.

I worry about a growing trend of companies and agencies — even those not directly responsible for global climate change — chasing the shiny advertising object of “purpose” without committing to concrete action. This is dangerous for consumers and for the global good. If that’s not argument enough, it also positions advertising professionals and agencies as untrustworthy messengers. We cannot allow ourselves to become the industry that cried “purpose.”

Luckily, there are some brands walking the walk: here are three examples of Cannes Grand Prix winners that are actually getting purpose right by centering authenticity and impact in their work.

Vice World News and Dentsu Webchutney won the Grand Prix across three categories at Cannes last week: Radio & Audio, Brand Experience & Activation, and Social & Influencer. The winning campaign? “Unfiltered History,” a “guerilla tour” of the British Museum that shines a light on disputed artifacts in the museum’s collection.

Why did this campaign win more Grand Prix than any other campaign at Cannes?

  • It was authentic to the brand: The activation and the campaign aligned with the VICE News tagline, “​​Original reporting on everything that matters.”
  • It centered authentic voices: The voices featured in the campaign were those of actual people from the artifacts’ country of origin.
  • It prioritized audience engagement: The augmented reality component of the campaign brought viewers inside the activation while enticing the audience to go see it for themselves.

From cat food to cannibalism, five campaigns around climate won a Cannes Grand Prix last week. One brand did it best in our book: Suncorp.

Australian insurance company Suncorp, in collaboration with James Cook University, CSIRO and Room11 Architects, and Leo Burnett Australia produced One House to Save Many, winner of the Innovation Grand Prix. Centered on designing a climate change resilient home, the campaign represents an authentic effort to innovate localized climate solutions while raising climate awareness in the public consciousness.

Why this campaign?

  • The campaign is authentic about issues facing its customers: One House to Save Many is rooted in the company’s experience dealing with the aftermath of climate disaster as an insurance provider. Suncorp chose partners like Room11 Architects who are experts in their fields and were included at every stage of project development.
  • It’s solutions-first: Suncorp provides a tangible response to climate change resilience for an audience that has seen firsthand the impacts of extreme weather.

Gender equity was another central theme in many of this year’s Grand Prix winners. Rivals Nike and Adidas were both rewarded for their efforts to empower women athletes, but women-run capital fund WE Capital is the standout here.

WE Capital and DDB Mexico earned a double Grand Prix for their Data Tienda campaign. In Mexico, 83% of women are shut out from obtaining loans from their businesses because they lack credit history. Data Tienda developed a nontraditional route to give Mexican women a credit history — using WhatsApp and the seals of approval from local shopkeepers they have patronized over the years.

Data Tienda won the Creative Data Grand Prix and the Glass Lions: Lions for Change Grand Prix because it perfectly executes purpose.

  • Mission authenticity shone through: The campaign highlighted WE Capital’s mission: To advocate and invest in female leadership with the dual aim of promoting social impact and generating financial returns.
  • The campaign showcased impact while retaining on-the-ground purpose: Data Tienda successfully told a compelling story about solving a systemic problem of gender equity, using the voices of the women experiencing it firsthand.

Ultimately, Cannes 2022 shows us that even the industry is starting to look for authenticity and impact as a measure of purpose campaigns. The ads that check all those boxes will win awards — and they’ll win with your audience.

View all Grand Prix winners here.

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